Door Language


If you keep your door open, do your students know that this means that you’re available for a conversation?

Last summer, I spent several days in the field with a bunch of students. I wanted to catch up with them, talk about the rest of their summer and their plans for the fall semester, and whatnot. Classes had been running for well over a month, and I hadn’t really seen these students around. I bumped into one student in the hallway, and asked, “Hey, how are you? What’s up? How are the others?” And he told me, “I came by your office to talk, but you looked really busy on your computer.”

Then, he told me how the others had told him that they had passed by, but I was really busy typing and they didn’t want disturb me.

I have my desk situated so that my desk is at about a 100 degree angle from me when I’m looking at my computer — there’s enough hallway traffic that facing the door directly would be a huge distraction for me. Apparently, I’m missing a lot of students who come by to see me. I guess I look really engaged when typing and they can’t interrupt?

If I’m in my office alone, of course if I’m busy on the computer. That’s pretty much all I do whenever I’m alone in the office. But if my door is wide open, then a conversation with a student or colleague is a higher priority. Apparently, this isn’t well understood, so right after this happened, I made a sign for my door:

It might be an academic convention that an open door means that our door is open, but it doesn’t look like everybody is the same page on this. Being overt about this fact might help.

Soon enough, I caught up with the students.

There’s an unfortunate PhD Comics strip that portrays faculty as inaccessible to their students. (I’ve even seen this on the door of some faculty, while visiting other institutions.) Perhaps if we drop some of the sarcasm, it might help.

By the way, I’m back from two weeks of vacation, and it was spectacular. (I had a week with my spouse’s family in a cold and snowy place, and then we went to quiet places along the Central Coast of California. It was nice, and there were elephant seals).

7 thoughts on “Door Language

  1. It’s encouraging that your student’s are so considerate – so much for the stereotype of the demanding, entitled snowflake.

  2. One of my fellow grad students had an advisor who was at sea a lot. And when he was in his office he was on the phone. Larry was able to talk with him by calling him on a phone.

  3. My PhD advisor carefully explained his office door policy very early in my program. I think he does this with everyone.
    Closed: I’m probably not here, but if I am, I REALLY don’t want to be disturbed. Knock ONLY for emergencies.
    Ajar (door touching doorframe): I’m busy, but if it’s a high priority (and not likely to take much time), knock.
    Open: Come on in!

    If I ever went into his office and he closed the door behind me, I knew the conversation was going to be Very Serious; fortunately these Very Serious conversations were rare and never about one of the many enormous-in-my-mind screw-ups I’d made. When I was in real trouble, we spoke off-campus or in the field (because my screw-up had been a near-miss at a conference and a serious misunderstanding in the field, respectively).

  4. Grad student now, but how you described your undergraduate students was exactly me two years ago. I would even walk by my professors door 3 or 4 times hoping they would look up and invite me in. And this was with a professor I was super close to (and still am to this day). For me, being able to set up meetings, even if it was just “can I come by sometime this afternoon?” without a specific time attached to it made me feel like I wasn’t interrupting. I think your sign would have helped me a lot because every so often my professor would remind me that if his door was open I was ALWAYS welcome and it would work for a while and slowly I would start to fade back to my old habits of just walking by hoping he would look up so I didn’t have to break his focus.

  5. One of our new hires put that comic on his door. I hate it and want to tear it down. Since his door is always shut, I haven’t actually seen him to talk to him about it in person at a convenient time.

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